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John Oliver takes on U.S. drone policy

Drone operators. Source: U.S. Defense of Department

Drone operators. Source: U.S. Defense of Department

Leave it to satirical news shows to unleash a swarm of criticism against U.S. drone policy.

John Oliver, formerly of “The Daily Show,” took on U.S. drone policy in last night’s episode of “Last Week Tonight.” Rolling Stone described the 12-minute segment as “hilariously sad.”

“While they’ve declined a bit recently, drone strikes will be as much a characteristic of the Obama presidency as Obamacare or receiving racist email forwards from distant relatives,” quipped Oliver.

To some extent, Oliver’s satirical take is right — drones, inasmuch as they’re “appealingly cheap and incredibly deadly,” are an effective poster child for the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. Obama, as his campaign’s national security team advised in a 2008 memo, has placed “pragmatism over ideology,” carefully crafting a counterterrorism strategy that utilizes rhetorical and legal loopholes to wage a “war on terror.” The war against Al Qaeda and so-called “affiliated forces” could continue outside of the public eye with help from drones, cyber and special forces operations while avoiding the bravado once associated with the Bush administration. And so far the administration’s drone program has remained well under wraps, albeit jostled by several major leaks.

That secrecy, argues Oliver, makes it easy to ignore the U.S. drone program: “Drone strikes are one of those things where it’s really convenient not to think about that much. Like the daily life of a circus elephant, or the fact that Beck is a Scientologist. You really don’t want people reminding you of those kinds of things.”

Here’s where Oliver falls short, however. It’s not that we don’t want to be reminded of what the government is doing in Waziristan or Yemen; we just don’t want to be reminded that we’re the reason the U.S. drone program is as large as it is in the first place. We want security without huge overhead costs, a “War on Terror” without “boots on the ground.” Underlying American support for using drones to target and kill suspected terrorists is a support for seeking out those suspected terrorists out in the first place. But drones aren’t without the costs both at home and abroad, and if we’re going to continue supporting policies that facilitate their use, we’ve got to come to terms with that.



Hannah Gais

Hannah is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association, a nonresident fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and the managing editor of Her work has appeared in a number of national and international publications, including Al Jazeera America, U.S. News and World Report, First Things, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, Truthout, Business Insider and Foreign Policy in Focus.

Gais is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, where she focused on Eastern Christian Theology and European Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais

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